As a teacher, not to mention human with a few habits needing attention, I became fascinated with brain science 10 years ago while watching a short clip on addiction. The explanation of brain functioning was not really that complicated. I was also curious about the human will during this time and why we do what we do and continue to do what we shouldn’t. Simply put, I came to realize by exerting the will, similar to exercising a muscle, it becomes stronger and stronger thereby changing behavior and altering brain pathways.
Let’s say the information highway in your brain looks much like the image above. The red dots are sensory/chemical impressions and the green rivers are neural pathways. (thanks to Cathy S Mendola and her beautiful textile art http://cmendola.blogspot.com/2010/05/neural-pathways.html) When something catches your attention or makes an impression – a headline, a brownie, a person, a picture – the brain, being an organ of habit, immediately fires unconscious connections setting your course down the green river. Before you know it, you are traveling the same path as usual – you read the headline and the story even though you have a desk full of fire drills, you eat the brownie even though you aren’t hungry and don’t need the sugar, etc. etc.
BUT the neuroplasticity of the brain is precisely the reason why habits CAN be changed. You not only get to decide WHY you want to change but the HOW of it is you interrupt the cycle. Now this isn’t about “just say no”. That didn’t work out for Nancy Reagan and drug clubs either. It’s about raising your consciousness to realize that mindfulness – being mindful of your actions and making conscious not unconscious choices – is the key to living your life instead of having your life live you. One decision at a time, you interrupt the way you’ve always done things and bring awareness to your previously unconscious behavior.
There are helpers along the way of course.
- Make a plan and write it down – this helps with reinforcement.
- Start with something small – you’re strengthening the will.
- Build reminders into your day- write them down.
- Write down your challenge, your motivation, and how you’ll reward yourself.
- Decide how you’ll defeat the inevitable urges to procrastinate or cheat- write it down.
- Develop some mindfulness with slow deep breathing, alleviating stress.
- Don’t do it alone – get a buddy or two.
- Know your triggers and how you’ll overcome them-write them down.
- Commit to the process for at least 30 days- consider a journal.
- Review your written motivations every day – check in with yourself.
A successful life isn’t one huge great decision, it’s a lot of little ones every day. Each moment is a chance to start new – do so with kindness toward yourself.